Thursday, January 21, 2016

6 steps to a meal plan that will ACTUALLY save you money.

***note: this post was originally published on 3/4/15, but since its very much relevant to the money saving series im working on right now, im going to re-post it with a few edits***

when it comes to groceries, the two things i mainly get asked about are meal plans and grocery lists. mainly thinks like "ok, i made the plan and the list and my grocery bill was still exactly the same!" which at first i thought was really weird, because meal planning and list making were what totally cut our grocery budget in half. but then i realized that "make a meal plan and list" probably way oversimplified the process. so today I'm going to share our method for meal planning, and hopefully, youll find at least some of it useful. because seriously, this method has been a lifesaver for us. i mean really, any weeks that we dont follow this plan (due to holidays, james working out of town, illness, laziness, etc.), our bank account really hurts. 

now, i feel like this needs a big fat disclaimer because i see SO many frugal living/personal finance bloggers talk about THIER way of doing things as though its the only way or that it is guaranteed to work for everyone/produce a certain result. because the majority of the advice ive read on such blogs has not been applicable/beneficial to our family and situation, im just going to come out and say it: that is a lie. 

this is by no means any kind of proven system and i can not guarantee any specific results or that it will even work for you/your family. 

however, the majority of this plan revolves around planning, efficiency, and reducing waste, which i do believe can at least help in most situations. so with all that out of the way, here we go: 

1. decide (in advance) where you will be shopping and how often. look, it really doesnt matter whether you go to three different stores once every few days or just go to costco once a month. in order for you to be able to effectively plan the groceries that youre going to buy, you first have to plan where/when you are going to buy them. this may sound silly but it will make a lot more sense in a minute when we get to steps 2 and 4. 

2. double check your schedule for the week (or two, or whatever the space between shopping trips is) so that youre only planning for the meals you need to plan. see, knowing how far apart your trips are going to be is essential, because the biggest money drain when it comes to groceries is buying more food than youre actually going to eat. looking over your calendar and accounting for the days/nights you dont need to cook (for example, family dinner, date night, birthday party, whatever), will keep you from buying supplies for meals that you wont even get to before its time to go shopping again. 

3. start your plan based on what foods you already have and aim to buy as little as possible. after youve figured out where youre going, when, and how many meals your preparing for, do a thorough search of all the food you currently have. got a bag of potatoes? cans of soup? chicken in the freezer? an absurd amount of cheese? start planning meals that will use up those ingredients. and if you have freezer meals/leftovers on hand by all means include those in your meal plan. do not just let them sit there taking up space. 

4. next, take a look at what's on sale. this is where its really important to know where youre going to be shopping. and while grocery sales are really there to trick you into buying extra groceries and spend more money because youre getting a "good deal", you can use this to your advantage by choosing your meals for the week based on what meats/produce/etc. are currently on sale at the store of your choosing. are pasta and sauce super cheap? make lasagna! huge sale on fish? put that on the list! doing this has the double benefit of not just saving money, but also keeping you from eating the same foods every single week (which was a really bad habit of mine for the first couple years we were married). 

5. FINALLY fill in the rest and add any extras/treats. ok, so lets pretend that im planning meals for the week (because thats how often i shop), and once i account for the nights we wont be home and leftovers in the freezer i have four dinners left to plan, using the foods that are on sale as inspiration. once i have that general plan, then i look over the pantry and fridge to see if were missing anything else: lunch supplies, cereal, condiments, spices, snacks, etc. you know, the kind of stuff that doesnt necessarily run out at the same time, that you dont have to buy very frequently but the meal plan cant go on without (in our house the #1 such thing would be olive oil), that stuff definitely goes into the plan and on the list. just, last. and only whats absolutely needed before the next shopping trip. 

6. once your plan is finished, make a detailed list (with quantities). so youve made it to the end, you know where youre going, how long youre shopping for, and what youre going to buy. now write it down (all of it). be specific ("1 lb shredded cheddar" not  just "cheese"). note the quantities (if you need three onions, then for crying out loud make sure you include that you need three onions!). the more detailed your list is, the less likely you are to forget something you needed, and the less likely you are to buy things that you dont need. trust me on this. 

and there you have it. thats how we plan our meals to save the big bucks on groceries. this plan also has the added bonus of reducing the wasted food we generate (either from things going bad before we can get to them or stuff just sitting around), and keeping out fridge and pantry from becoming disorganized and overcrowded (did i mention that the benefits of meal planning go way beyond just saving money?). 

i know everything i just wrote is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the generally accepted "start with staples and stockpile whats cheapest now to eat later and spend all day making a month of freezer meals" philosophy for thrifty grocery shopping, but you know what? thats never worked for us. and maybe it doesnt work for you either. thats ok, there are totally other ways of doing things and you can still save money. 

do you plan out your familys meals? whats your #1 tip? 

1 comment:

  1. I love that you wrote this article. For the month of February I did a meal plan and shopping list thinking it would save me money (and I even wrote a blog on all of my prep...which I was going to do a follow up post but can't bring myself to do it LOL) only to end up spending MORE that month by the time it was all said and done than in January. And February only has 28 days :/ By week 3 i wasnt following it at all because i fidnt account for leftovers or invitations out. And of course I filled my meal plans with lots of new pinterest recipes which probably hurt my budget a lot...and half of them sucked. So this month I went back to what I know and started shopping and planning the way you just described. I checked my pantry and freezer, planned meals around what I already had, finished the leftovers in the fridge, and purchased a couple sale items not on my list with the intention of planning for them next week since it was such a good deal. Hoping for a better round this month!